Viktor Vasnetsov was born into the large patriarchal family of the local priest in the remote village of Lopyal, near Vyatka. Shortly thereafter the family moved to the village of Ryabovo where the artist’s childhood passed. He began drawing at an early age, but tradition had it that sons should follow in their fathers’ footsteps and in 1858 he was sent to an ecclesiastical school, and in a short time to the Vyatka theological seminary.
Vyatka Gubernia was famous at that time for its folk arts and crafts. The craftsmen and women produced all sorts of things—embroidery, wood-carving (from shaft-bows and household articles to shutters for peasant houses), painted spoons and furniture, decorated clay toys and the famous Vyatka gingerbread cakes — and all these artefacts must have been familiar to the inquisitive young boy.
The countryside of that area, with its hilly copses and dense forest, its meandering streams and broad valleys, has a special charm of its own: it would be impossible not to fall in love with it. From his earliest years Vasnetsov heard folk legends and epic tales about the Russian heroes, or ‘bogatyrs’, and sad, drawling songs sung by the womenfolk on evenings lit by burning splinters. All this, of course, influenced the future artist’s outlook: it was here, in Vyatka, that his passionate affection for art and for the folk epic was born.
At the seminary, Vasnetsov used every spare minute to draw, and soon this passion developed from a pleasurable pastime into the main point of his life. He did not become a priest, as his father desired. In his final year at the seminary Vasnetsov resolved to leave Vyatka for St. Petersburg and enter the Academy of Arts.
By raffling two of his genre paintings—The Milkmaid and The Reaper (1867)—he made enough money to get to St. Petersburg and start studying at the school run by the Society for the Furtherance of the Arts. In 1868 he became a pupil at the Academy. Forced to pay his own way in life, Vasnetsov gave private lessons and illustrated various publications.
At the Academy he made friends with Repin, Antokolsky, Kramskoi and Stasov. His favourite teacher was Pavel Chistyakov who immediately realised his remarkable talent and worked with him, encouraging him when things went badly and rejoicing in his triumphs. ‘My conversations with Pavel Chistyakov brought much warmth and light into my life,’ he recalled. Vasnetsov studied at the Academy from 1868 to 1875.
His first paintings—Beggars, Tea-Drinking, Workman with Wheelbarrow, Old Woman Feeding Hens and Children Destroying Nests —were displayed in 1872-74 at exhibitions of the Society for the Furtherance of the Arts. They revealed what were to be two of Vasnetsov’s most characteristic qualities—keen observation and a close interest in the life of the people. His next two works—The Little Bookshop (1876, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) and From House to House (1876, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW)—clinched his reputation as a genre artist who knew life and who knew how to reproduce it vividly and expressively.
Stasov justly remarked that Vasnetsov loved the people ‘not like a Populist or a nobleman, with a condescending, artificial love, but simply, as his friends and acquaintances’. Especially successful was the picture From House to House, which Vasnetsov began in 1875. The fate of poor, lonely old people, thrown onto the street on a cold and frosty day, looking for refuge, disturbed the artist. This is an alarmingly sad painting, which tells the tragedy of people unwanted and homeless in their old age. ‘I think we have all come across such people,’ wrote Stasov. ‘What poverty! How sad is human nature! A wonderful painting!’
In 1876, on the persistent advice of his friends, Vasnetsov went abroad and settled in the outskirts of Paris, where he did a lot of work from nature. His album from this period was full of drawings of people from the ‘lower estates’, workers and peasants, and the principal result of his observations was the painting Showbooths in the Outskirts of Paris (1877, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG).
In 1878, back in Russia, Vasnetsov moved with his family to Moscow. ‘When I arrived in Moscow,’ he wrote, ‘I felt I had arrived home and need travel no further; the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s brought tears to my eyes, so dear to my soul, so unforgettable were they.’ Here he turned to new subjects—the Russian folk epic, the fairy-tale, and Russian history. This change from genre-painting to historical was not entirely unexpected: even while at the Academy Vasnetsov had done a series of sketches on epic themes and also a study entitled The Icon-Painting Workshop.
‘There was never a conflict within me between genre and history,’ he wrote, ‘and therefore there was no turning-point or transitional struggle. . . I have always been convinced that both genre and historical pictures, and fairy-tales, songs, folk epics and dramas, all reflect the whole inner and outer make-up of a nation, with its past and present, and perhaps even its future. . . It is a poor nation that does not remember, value and love its history.’
His first historical painting, After the Battle of Igor Svyatoslavich with the Polovtsi (1880, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), was shown at the Eighth Peredvizhniki Exhibition. The old Russian legend related in The Lay of Igor’s Host appealed to Vasnetsov because of its great epic power. Having decided to use a motif from the immortal poem, he studied history, visited the Armoury and made a great many preparatory etudes, searching for the best way to treat the subject. Gradually he progressed from sketches showing the fury and intensity of the battle to a solemn evocation of the tragedy of it. Striving to convey both the deep purport and the heroic tenor of the poem, the artist depicted the fallen warriors, lying as though asleep in the never-ending southern steppe, in the light of the ascending moon. The work marked a change in the artist’s creative manner: from small, detailed pictures he turned now to a large, sweeping monumental canvas.
The dark grey-brown colouring of his earlier works is replaced by rich, though restrained yellows, blues, reds and greyish-greens. The painting did not win general recognition. Some, like Pavel Chistyakov, acclaimed it as an ‘unusual, remarkable, new and deeply poetical work’ while others, not understanding Vasnetsov’s innovatoriness, were more than indifferent towards it.
In Moscow Vasnetsov got to know the family of a famous art patron, the rich industrialist Savva Mamontov, who had grouped around himself the flower of the Russian intelligentsia. Many artists would spend the summer at Abramtsevo, Mamontov’s estate near Moscow, where theatrical productions were staged and artists had ample opportunities for fruitful work. In 1881 at Abramtsevo Vasnetsov painted one of his best works, Alenushka (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), on the Russian fairy-tale subject. The gentleness and poetry of the fairy-tale touched the artist’s sensitive, responsive heart. The painting, however, does not literally reproduce the story of the fairytale, but gets to the bottom of its emotional structure. The little girl’s posture, her head bent, her chestnut hair bouncing on her shoulders, her gaze full of sadness—everything speaks of Alenushka’s sorrow. Nature, too, is in consonance with the girl’s mood, mourning, as it were, in sympathy. The slender birches and young firs around Alenushka seem to be guarding her from the evil world. Alenushka was one of the first pictures in Russian art in which the poetry of folk-tales was inseparably fused with the lyricism of the Russian countryside.
At Abramtsevo Vasnetsov helped to produce sets for an amateur production in 1881 of a play based on the fairy-tale The Snow Maiden. The actors were the members of Mamontov’s circle, and Vasnetsov played the part of Frost. Vasnetsov’s stage-decorations did much to convey the charm of the lyrical tale: ‘Never before,’ wrote Stasov, ‘had the imagination gone so far and so deep in recreating the fabulous, legendary, epic architectural forms and ornaments of Ancient Rus.’ Stasov managed to have the decorations transferred to the large professional stage of Mamontov’s private opera house. Vasnetsov also did some work as an architect at Abramtsevo: he designed a small church-cum-burial-vault which can still be seen in the grounds. In the early 1900s the main fasade of the Tretyakov Gallery, and several private houses, were built according to Vasnetsov’s designs.
One very interesting piece of work was Vasnetsov’s frieze—The Stone Age—which he made for the MoscowHistoricalMuseum. At first Vasnetsov categorically rejected the suggestion of the historian A. S. Uvarov to produce a mural depicting the people of the stone age. Presently, however, he agreed to take the commission and immediately set about the work. He studied historical documents and held discussions with archeologists to gain insight into stone age life. His work on the 25-metre-long frieze took about two years—both in Moscow and Abramtsevo— and was not completed until 10 April 1885.
‘The impression made by The Stone Age on the artist’s contemporaries,’ wrote the artist and art historian Igor Grabar, ‘can probably be compared only to that once made by Karl Bryullov’s Pompeii.’
Vasnetsov’s talent as a monumental artist was so manifest that he was invited the same year to help decorate the recently built St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. The murals, as conceived by Vasnetsov, were to be a monument to ancient Rus, for which reason they are largely devoted to portrayals of princes—Vladimir, Andrei Bogolyubsky, Alexander Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi and others. Vasnetsov covered the walls of the Cathedral with ornamental decorations in which fantastic flowers and strange animals were interwoven in whimsical, colourful patterns. The work entailed certain difficulties: the church’s rulers demanded murals in the official, traditional style, but the artist could not renounce his perception of the world, nor his realist aspirations. It is not, therefore, the stylised faces of saints that look down from the walls of St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, but convincingly portrayed Russian people, brave, powerful champions of freedom and justice.
Vasnetsov’s intense work on the Cathedral did not prevent him from realising other artistic plans. In 1889 he painted the picture Tsarevich Ivan on a Grey Wolf (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) and displayed it at a Peredvizhniki Exhibition, and did illustrations for Lermontov’s The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich, His Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov (1891).
In 1891 Vasnetsov and his family returned from Kiev to Moscow and settled near Ab- ramtsevo. With the help of Tretyakov, who bought his pictures and etudes, and Mamontov, Vasnetsov realised a long-cherished dream of his—to design and build his own studio. Here he began work on the painting Bogatyrs, a study for which he had done many years before.
The picture Ivan the Terrible (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) appeared at the Tenth Peredvizhniki Exhibition in 1897. At his first personal exhibition in 1898 Vasnetsov presented Bogatyrs, on which he had worked, all in all, for about twenty years.
In this large monumental-decorative work, the artist recreated the images of the three favourite heroes of the Russian folk epic: Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich. Each of them has his own individual characteristics.
To intensify the monumental effect, Vasnetsov raises the line of the horizon somewhat, and the viewer seems to look up from below is suppressed and trampled on, while in the latter it is triumphant, calm and important, unafraid and accomplishing by its own will whatever it regards as necessary for all the people.’ Maxim Gorky wrote enthusiastically about the artist: ‘I love and respect this great bard more and more . . And how many more living, beautiful, mighty subjects there are for him to treat! I wish him immortality.’
At the beginning of the new century Vasnetsov executed numerous compositions on religious subjects and worked simultaneously on several pictures—The Bard (1910, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), The Sleeping Princess, The Frog Princess (1918), Kashchei the Deathless (1917-26), The Princess Who Would Not Laugh (1914-26)—and on other large compositions (all in the Vasnetsov House Museum in Moscow).
The artist’s creative imagination seemed inexhaustible, but many of his plans were fated never to be realised. On 23 July 1926 Vasnetsov died in his studio in Moscow, while working on a portrait of the artist Mikhail Nesterov.
at the horsemen, who are clearly silhouetted against the bright clouds. The canvas is all the more decorative because of the delicate, noble combination of bright, rich colours —green, brown, red, white and blue. The broad landscape, with its sloping hills and meadows overgrown with wild grass, is united with the figures of the epic heroes by the picture’s smooth, calm rhythms.
In 1898 Bogatyrs was given a place of honour in the Tretyakov Gallery. ‘I consider Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs to be one of the foremost works in the history of Russian painting,’ wrote Vladimir Stasov. Comparing Repin’s Barge-Haulers with Vasnetsov’s picture, the critic went on: ‘Both express all the power and might of the Russian people. Only, in the former that power